- Emma Simmonds
- 7 September 2021
Jennifer Hudson sings her heart out as the great Aretha Franklin in a serviceable but unspectacular biopic
A knock-out singer finds her creative voice and battles with her demons in this surface-level biopic that looks at the tumultuous life and extraordinary success of soul icon Aretha Franklin. Before her death in 2018, Franklin was involved in the development of what would become a long-gestating project, handpicking the Oscar-winning star of Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson, to play her. Director Liesl Tommy (who honed her craft on TV shows like Jessica Jones and The Walking Dead) makes her feature debut, while Tracey Scott Wilson (The Americans, Fosse/Verdon) is on screenwriting duties, with a story by Thelma & Louise and Nashville's Callie Khouri.
We first meet ten-year-old Aretha (played initially by Skye Dakota Turner) as she impresses guests with her already formidable singing voice at her father's starry shindigs in Detroit, an apparently innocent spell in the spotlight that's abruptly sullied when she's sexually abused by a partygoer. When Hudson takes over in the role, we see Aretha as a young woman singing for the civil rights movement, and her early, not terribly memorable, recording career in New York, before she finds the inspiration to create the music that made her name. Forest Whitaker is her overbearing Baptist minister father CL Franklin, Marlon Wayans her volatile husband / manager Ted, with Tituss Burgess, Audra McDonald and a scene-stealing Mary J. Blige (playing Dinah Washington) in support.
Respect adopts a soft, misty-eyed aesthetic which doesn't greatly suit the material, lacking the requisite grit to tell this story of hard-won success. Aretha is portrayed as a quiet, largely compliant character who is dominated by bullish men, but whose feelings and frustrations find an outlet in her almighty singing voice. Hudson is the woman for the job vocally and delivers an affected, sometimes appealingly delicate performance, though the characterisation doesn't feel terribly honest; Aretha's journey isn't well fleshed out, with some jarring jumps, and the aforementioned demons remain unexplored until the third act. Her work with the civil rights movement is largely skirted over, as if her passionate and political side doesn't suit a narrative that seems to want to keep its protagonist down, so it can more powerfully raise her up.
The scenes where the singer descends into an alcohol-fuelled depression and acts out like a diva are stronger and more gutsy, though the film doesn't make enough of the heart-breaking reality of what Aretha endured behind closed doors during an era where she became known for her female empowerment anthems. However, as with the NWA story Straight Outta Compton and Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, the magic of studio sessions depicting the recording of future classics is well captured; the putting together of the titular track is particularly thrilling, with each perfect addition and detail drawn attention to, and Aretha's creative instinct and musicianship highlighted beautifully, showing her as so much more than just that voice. As biopics go, Respect has some slickness and wears its lengthy runtime well, but the Queen of Soul undoubtedly deserved better.
Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 10 September.